Critical Analysis: What’s up with North Korea?

University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea (BBC)

University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea (BBC)

Since being sanctioned by the UN in March for carrying out a third nuclear test, Pyongyang has threatened nuclear strikes on the US, formally declared war on the South, and pledged to reopen a nuclear reactor in blatant defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

On Friday, North Korea warned it would not be able to guarantee the safety of foreign embassy staff if war broke out. But not a single country seems to be taking this threat seriously. Foreign embassies in the capital of Pyongyang appear to be staying put so far despite a warning. Russia is considering the request seriously. However, the British have brushed it off, considering the threat “part of a campaign of continued rhetoric” and asserting that North Korea is insinuating that it is making the request because the US poses a threat to North Korea.

Is war on the horizon?

General Walter Sharp, who until last year was the commander of US forces in Korea, explained the escalation problem to NPR.  The “counterprovocation” plan, that the US intends to invoke if the North Koreans launch even a limited artillery attack on South Korea, authorizes the South Koreans to fire back immediately. As defensive plan, at the root it is an “if you are fired at, fire back.” But this could easily mean war. U.S. officials say the counterprovocation plan and the U.S. flexing its muscles send three strong messages: the South Koreans see that the U.S. military is standing behind them; the North Koreans find out what they’d face were they to start something; and China sees how high the stakes are and why it may need to rein North Korea in.

Furthermore, the Pentagon decided to delay an intercontinental ballistic missile test that was scheduled for next week at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, for fear that it would only intensify the tensions between the US and North Korea. North Korea has become angered by the military exercises that the US and South Korea are doing. These exercises demonstrate potential power the two allies have to strike back: B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters, and ballistic missile defense-capable warships.  But while the US is taking the threats seriously, leaders continue to say that there are no obvious signs that North Korea is planning for a large-scale attack.

Does North Korea have any support internationally?

Even China, North Korea’s longtime ally, is speaking critically of North Korea’s recent activities. “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping at an economic forum in Hainan province. Avoiding mentioning North Korea by name, Xi said, “[w]hile pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.”

Chinese officials who value stability above all else will probably not abandon North Korea altogether during these tensions. But seeing an opportunity amid Chinese frustrations, the Obama administration is attempting to push Beijing to take a much stronger stance against the renegade country than it has in the past. China is tightening its stance; it wants dialogue to ease tensions, not war.

Mimi Faller is a 2L at DU Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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